Византийское миссионерство. Можно ли сделать из «варвара» христианина?

Сергей Аркадьевич Иванов



Cultural History of Byzantine Missionary Activities


Sergej Arkadjevich Ivanov







Christianity is a missionary religion by definition. Even the word “apostolic”, when applied to the Church, refers to this initial impetus to expansion. However, Jesus Christ in New Testament repeatedly underlines that he addresses “only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel”. The situation changes when Jews reject the Gospel—Jesus, after his resurrection, appeals to his disciples with the famous words “Go and teach all nations!” “Barbaric” nation of Scythians appears for the first time in the Epistle of St. Paul to Colossians, where he insists that for God there is no difference between Greeks and “barbarians”. The apologists of the early Christianity liked to praise “barbarians” at the expense of their pagan compatriots — they insisted that “primitive nations” are wiser and more eager to convert to the true religion than heathen Romans. Meanwhile, we know next to nothing of the first two centuries of mission. Whether the first Christians ever volunteered to preach to “real barbarians”, remains unclear. It does not mean that the latter were unaware of the new religion: information spread through mercenaries, who returned home from the Empire, through merchants travelling to “barbaric” lands and, most importantly, through hostages and redeemed captives who happened to live in the foreign milieu for considerable time. From this group originate famous “apostles” like Wulfilas (Goths), Nino (Georgia), Gregory (Armenia), Frumentius (Ethiopia) etc. Although such people happened to be missionaries, this was not their initial intention,





and their activities do not indicate that the imperial Church had missionary ambitions.


The conversion of the Roman Empire changed the situation. Christian emperors of the 4th century regarded the support of Christian communities outside imperial borders as their imperial duty. But there is still no evidence of the missionary efforts of Romans among pagan “barbarians”; meanwhile, this association of Christianity with loyalty to the Romans caused great damage to mission: from this period onward the political authorities of all the countries bordering on the Empire suspected their Christian subjects of hidden loyalty to Constantinople. As a consequence, they backed rivaling religions or “heretical” trends within Christianity. This is how Monophysites and Nestorians, cursed by the “Orthodox”, became the most numerous Christian communities in Persia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Central Asia, India and even in distant China, whereas Arianism, another Christian “sect”, became the religion of European “barbarians”.


As Christianity became imperial ideology, the attitude of Church authorities towards “barbarians” began to change: the classical Greco-Roman perception of “other” as a non-human finds its way to the writings of theologians. Some of them insist that a “barbarian” cannot be a Christian, other Fathers of the Church praise the conversion of the “beasts”, explaining that this is a way to pacify them and make them harmless. One of the very few exceptions is John Chrysostome who still holds to the old Christian “internationalism”. There is still no trace of any deliberate missionary activities of the church among “barbarians” outside the imperial borders.


Only when the Western Empire collapsed and the Church on its territory remained the only organized institution in the midst of chaos, did the Popes of Rome begin the activities which may be regarded as missionary. It should be dated to the end of the 6th century. However, the “real” mission as we understand it today must be accredited not to them but to itinerant Irish monks who sailed to the continent by the scores in the 7th century. It was these “barbarians”, preaching in “barbaric” languages, living side by side with their converts, working indefatigably, who formed the image of a missionary which survived up to this day. So, we may state that mission proper began when the Roman Empire, with its cultural isolationism and visceral hatred of “barbarians”, perished.





In the Eastern Roman Empire, the traditional institutions and culture survived. The contempt towards “barbarians” was inherited from the Roman tradition, but it grew with the messianic concept of the universal vocation of the emperor. The Church had to support the State in its





global ambitions. Christian mission appears in Byzantium in the 6th century, but from the very beginning it was organized and directed by political authorities. The author traces down christianizing initiatives of the emperors: Anastasius, Justin I, Justinian, Maurice and Heraclius.


The intricate details of Christian missions to Sudan in the 6th century show that the only goal of their organizers was to overcome their Monophysite (and, vice versa, Chalcedonite) competitors. Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora, who supported rival religious parties, sent missions to Sudan racing one another (as is brilliantly described by John of Ephesos) and their primary goal was to persuade “barbarians” to turn down rival preachers. The only success of Constantinopolitan imperial missions to Africa was the temporary conversion of the Sudanese princedom of Makurrah to Chalcedonian creed. This princedom must be accredited as the only state outside historical boundaries of the Roman Empire which embraced Byzantine Christianity — except Rus'. Whereas the religious influence of Byzantium on Africa was meagre, its political image remained important there for five hundred years after Egypt had been conquered by Islam and all ties with it had been broken. For example, Nubian officials named themselves with Byzantine titles.


Imperial Byzantine mission made some progress in converting Persian aristocracy by the end of the 6th century. Our sources on this matter are numerous, both Persian and Latin, narrative and fabulous. If we bring them all together and single out the historical core, we will see that this short-lived success was the result of a typical political intrigue and did not involve active preaching. The first quarter of the 7th century witnessed impressive victories of emperor Heraclius in the Middle East and considerable spread of Byzantine Christianity — but it resembled a Crusade rather than a mission. Byzantines initiated the concept of “holy war”, and all the conversions were made by force (a little later strong disgust at Greeks and their religion facilitated mass conversion to Islam in the Middle East). More interesting to us is the peaceful success among Christian princes of the Caucasus and Azerbaijan: as in Africa, political appeal of the Empire turns out to be more significant than the religious one.


The propagation of Christianity in India, Central Asia and China was carried out by Nestorian missionaries who had nothing in common with Byzantium and were regarded as heretics by the imperial church. Arabic Christianity had no Greek roots, but when persecutions began, local Christians turned to Constantinople for help. Interestingly, Byzantium did not intervene but asked the Ethiopian king to do so. The source to which the author pays special attention is Vita of St. Grigentius, apostle of Himyarites (Southern Arabians). This text is of later origin, but it reflects some genuine facts and some general ideas, spread among Byzantines, of what a missionary should be like.


Summing up, the Early Byzantine period witnessed the birth of a very special kind of mission: very rarely it was the initiative of individuals or





groups of monks or even local churches — usually it was a political undertaking carried out by government envoys of religious character. In most cases, such missions were invited by “barbaric” rulers, who visited Constantinople personally and got baptism at the hands of the Emperor. Leaders of primordial “barbaric states” regarded Christianity as a pass to the community of “normal” states, whereas developed political entities tried to reject the excessive Byzantine claims of global tutelage. If we outline all the missionary endeavors of Constantinople implemented outside the imperial borders without any provoking instigation from outside, we will see that they extended to the Crimea, Abkhazia, and Sudan, that is, territories which could be regarded as potential fields of political conquest.





Middle Byzantine period began with catastrophic defeats of the Empire both in Asia (from Arabs) and in Europe (from Bulgars). Greek Christianity outside Byzantium declined as well. But even before the Empire began to recover, Byzantines resumed missionary efforts. There was even more space for individual initiative than before. The first preacher of the new epoch was Stephen (8th C.), bishop of Sugdaia in the Crimea, which belonged to Khazars. Stephen was ardently christianizing Khazars on his own account, without any support from Constantinople, governed by an iconoclastic emperor hostile to Stephen. However, the real revitalization of mission came with the general renaissance of the Empire in the 9th century. This renewed interest in mission can be traced in the renewal of the cult of St. Andrew, proverbial preacher to “barbarians”. His new Vita, which was written in the 1 half of the 9lh century, depicts an ideal missionary. The pivot of this trend is the appearance of Cyril and Methodius, “apostles” of Slavs. Hundreds of books were written about them and the author has no intention to go into any details. What is important is that Thessaloniki brothers mattered more to their converts than to the Empire. Constantinople did not care about the fates of the brothers, did not help them — here lies the reason why Byzantine sources never mentioned Cyril and Methodius.


The conversion of Bulgaria in the 860s already bears all the birthmarks of the “political mission run by the state”, known to us from Early Byzantium. Greeks’ conduct was so unscrupulous, the spiritual instruction was so ruthlessly superseded with the imposition of Greek customs and habits, the religious aspect was so strongly overshadowed by the political one, that Bulgars abhorred it and for a short while defected to the side of Rome. Thanks to this, we have a precious source — questions put by Bulgars to the Pope concerning the missionary practice of the Byzantines. From this document we learn how inflexible and arrogant Greek





missionaries were. And we know that it nearly cost them a defeat. The responses of the Pope Nicholas I to these questions show drastic differences between Western and Eastern approaches to mission. By the way, the same intransigence was shown by Methodius and his disciples in Moravia. The final defeat of Cyrillo-Methodian mission there (not backed by Byzantine government anyway) was caused by the narrow-minded position of the Orthodox clergy, who did not condescend to the immaturity of Moravian Christianity and demanded from Slavic neophytes to observe the most severe Byzantine rites. On the other hand, competing Latin clergy showed a great deal of tolerance and won the upper hand. The same period saw the first attempt to baptize Rus’ — most probably, abortive. Patriarch Photius, a great literatus and churchman of the 9th century, who is believed to be the mastermind of Byzantine missionary efforts of this period, shows great contempt for “barbarians”. From his point of view, the only way for them to become Christians was to bow to the Christian Empire.


It was a deadlock for mission: in order to convince people in whatever, you have to please them. Byzantines learned their lesson: it becomes obvious from our scrutiny of another crucial source, insufficiently used by scholars in this respect — letters of Constantinopolitan Patriarch Nicholas Mysticos (1 half of the 10th C.). He instructs his missionaries to make tactical concessions to “barbaric” rulers — quite opposite to what Patriarch Photios insisted on in the previous century. The first success of the 10th century was the conversion of Alania in the Northern Caucasus. Although it turned out to be not decisive and Alanian Christianity was uprooted soon for several decades, although a great role in this conversion was played by Abkhazian Orthodox church (a replay of the situation of Arabia — Ethiopia in the 6th C.), still it is hard to overestimate the fact that Constantinopolitan Patriarchate finally won over this, absolutely “barbaric” area for itself for the next five hundred years.


In the middle of the 10th century one more area was converted to Byzantine Christianity — Hungary. At the first stage, Magyar princes visited Constantinople for baptism and imperial gifts (we know this routine from the Early Byzantine period); at the second stage Greek clergy went there for everyday work. In the Hungarian case we have many archeological evidence which facilitate our understanding of the details of this work. Another source of our information is Christian vocabulary of Hungarian language. The majority of this vocabulary is of Slavic origin, which means that Greeks did not interfere much with the local population, relying more on the help of local Christian Slavs. Finally, Hungary defected from the Constantinopolitan realm to the Roman one.


The main success of Byzantine missionary activities and Byzantine foreign policy in general was the conversion of Rus'. It turns out that the Greeks did not pay a slightest attention to this event which enlarged the domain of Orthodoxy twofold! In analyzing missionary practices of





Greeks in Rus’ the author draws on some sources, rarely used by Byzatine scholars — the Old Russian Vita of Leontius, bishop of Rostov, the answers of John, the Greek metropolitan of Rus’ in the 11th century, to the questions of the inferior missionaries. John tries to be tolerant — but he cannot. He insists on stringent observation of all Byzantine rites (“as in the State of Romans, i. e. Byzantines”). The only concession he makes concerns severe Russian frosts: he lets priests put fur clothes under their liturgical garments.


The author also deals with a question of relations between Byzantium and the world of Islam. Arabic captives were being baptized by force rather than by preaching. Very few cases when Greek monks were visiting Caliphate and converting Moslems are collected from Byzantine hagiography. Promises of Byzantine emperors to spread Christianity to the Arabic world look more like crusading rather than missionary plans.





In the book a survey is made of Byzantine efforts to convert nomads. Greek sources here are numerous. For centuries Byzantines regarded nomads as essentially unlawful people whose conversion to Christianity demanded that they fully reject their basic ways of life. For example, the missionaries were trying to forbid Tatars to drink “koumys” (horse milk). But such rigidity gradually gave way to more sober approach: as the Empire was declining, its demands became less strict. It can be proved by the marginal notes in the “Sugdaian Synaxarion” and by such outstanding and largely overlooked source as the questions of Theognoste, the Greek bishop of Saray (capital of Tatars), addressed to Constantinopolitan patriarch John Bekkos, and the answers of the latter about the sense and the formalities of missionary practices. This is a document of real religious wisdom and tolerance. It proves that Greeks preached to nomads in difficult circumstances, and showed great courage in doing this. They simplified the rite, adjusted the teaching and tried hard to disseminate not the Byzantine way of life, but the most general concepts of Christianity. Interestingly, the Patriarch approves of all the innovations suggested by the bishop with the only exception: he insists on the excommunication of a priest who happened to kill somebody during his missionary service.


The author also deals with Alanian Christianity. He compiled all medieval Greek inscriptions from Northern Caucasus, scattered through archeological accounts of the past hundred years. Several dozens religious inscriptions (sometimes in broken Greek, sometimes in Ossetian or Kabardine languages but in Greek characters) prove that Byzantines did not have any regular clergy there for any considerable time; they converted Northern Caucasus but failed to organize normal local church, although Alanic bishop is constantly mentioned in official Byzantine





documents. The big part of the chapter is dedicated to the analysis of a first-class source, which has never been used properly: the verbose letter of Theodore, Byzantine bishop of Alania (13th C.), to the Patriarch, with the complaints on barbarity and rudeness of his flock. Theodore, like Theognoste, tries to condescend to the spiritual weakness of “barbarians” — however, he cannot but abhor their proneness to paganism. Difficult to understand, overloaded with biblical allusions, this personal document is still the best evidence of the psychology of a Byzantine cleric surrounded by “savages”.





The last part of the monograph consists of generalizations and conclusions. The author tries to outline methods of Byzantine mission, which Byzantines themselves never theoretize on. Data are collected from accidental slips and oblique evidence of hagiography. At early stages of the history of missions Byzantine preachers were trying to persuade “barbarians” to reject bellicose way of life and not to invade the Empire — it logically led local rulers to regard them as saboteurs, and cost life to some of them. Later missionary discourse changed: preachers began to advertise military achievements of their Christian Empire and to promise to “barbarians” similar victories over their neighbors. Strangely, the main emphasis was put by Greek missionaries on retelling stories from the Old Testament and Church history rather than simple evangelical parables. More important were the civilizing efforts: missionaries planted orchards, sowed grain, organized schools etc. The fundamental mistake of the Byzantines was that they did not pay much attention to this part of mission — the Empire preferred to have contacts only with ruling elites and to make stress on political ties. As a consequence the Orthodox cause was uprooted with every transfer of power or political necessity. The question of the language of mission is also complicated. Although Greek' Church Fathers praised the gift of “speaking in tongues”, Byzantines did not show any inclination to learn foreign languages. Although the Orthodox church, contrary to the Roman, did not principally object to the use of the vernacular in liturgy, Byzantine cultural snobbery hampered any contacts “from heart to heart”. History of Greek clergy in Rus’ shows that Byzantine bishops never tried to address the flock in vernacular. Byzantines did not know such Western institution as “missionary bishopric” without a center. Who was carrying out missions practically? It must have been monks. Meanwhile, monastery rules of Byzantium did not approve of the mission, and in a charming Greek tale of a demon caught by a monk the former admits under pressure that the monastic desire to go and convert “barbarians” is in fact his malicious instigation!





The cause of weakness of the Byzantine mission is the Greeks’ eschatological approach to Christianization. In their opinion, the whole world should be baptized from above. Earthly mission was appreciated only as a shadowy reflection of the divine. Greeks remembered well Christ’s prophecy that the Last Judgement would come as soon as the Gospel had been preached in all parts of the world. So, Byzantines felt it as a kind of arrogance to intervene into Heavenly designs. However, it was not the only reason why Byzantine mission was so weak. Byzantium did not understand Christianity without Roman Empire. Consequently, a country, which did not belong to Byzantium politically, remained to some extent “nonchristian” in the eyes of the Greeks. This is why their Christian mission was always a political one. This is why Byzantines invariably imposed on the neophytes all religious duties of imperial subjects. To some extent, it may be argued, Greeks did not even want to convert “barbarians”, because there existed some danger that these “savages” will sully the shining beauty of the Orthodoxy. These feelings are obvious from the following example. Theophanes Continuatus, Byzantine chronicler of the 10th century, describes the emperor Leo V converting pagan Bulgarians: “He delivered Christian faith to them, into which they had to convert with our help, and he deserved curse, because he was, by the God’s word, “casting pearls before swine”. As we see, “barbarians” are not worthy of Christianity!


Somebody can say that the initial “internationalism” and “democratism” of Christian doctrine suffocated in the iron embrace of the isolationist Empire. Somebody else can put it in a different way: active mission presupposes active attitude towards life and Christian duties; in this sense mission is the invention of the Medieval West, whereas the Orthodox East followed the initial eschatological approach of the Early Church. Whatever explanation is more accurate, it is beyond doubt that missionary zeal, distinguishable in Cyril and Methodius, in Stephen of Sugdaia, in Theognoste and some other enthusiasts, was in Byzantium overcome by cultural snobbery and messianic imperialism. This is why Christian Orthodoxy lost to its spiritual rivals the Nile valley, the Middle East, Moravia, Croatia, Abkhazia, Hungary, Lithuania, Khazaria and, for the short time, even neighboring Bulgaria. Historical consequences of this cultural specifics of Byzantine Christianity are huge and lay beyond the scope of my monograph.



[Back to Index]